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IMG Academy trainee, Andrew McCutchen, worthy All-Stars

Andrew McCutchen trained a majority of his off-season training physically and mentally at IMG Academy.
Andrew McCutchen trained a majority of his off-season training physically and mentally at IMG Academy.

In the old days, nobody ever made a bad pitch, swung at a bad pitch or missed the cutoff man. No sir, everybody played the game of baseball "the right way" back then.

While that is how many baseball people and fans like to remember it, it's just not true. A quick check of the history books show that batters struck out, players made errors and pitchers threw wild pitch 50 years ago, too.

Frankly, the constant bashing of today's major-league players for not caring about the game's fundamentals or being willing to improve gets tired. Today's players care, too.

The two players most likely to represent the Pirates in the All-Star Game on July 10 at Kansas City -- center fielder Andrew McCutchen and right-hander James McDonald -- are two cases in point.

McCutchen had a miserable second half last season, hitting .216 and being successful on just eight of 13 stolen base attempts. Upset by his performance, McCutchen decided to do something about it.

McCutchen spent a large part of the offseason working out at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., concentrating on improving his first-step quickness and overall running form. He also worked on the mental side of the game, watching hours of videotape in attempt to determine why he struggled against right-handed pitching in the latter part of last season.

"Andrew might have as keen a sense of self awareness as any player I've been around," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "He understands his weaknesses and has a willingness to improve upon them."

Already considered one of the better young players in the game, the 25-year-old McCutchen is emerging as a superstar. He went into Tuesday night's game at Philadelphia hitting .339 with 13 home runs, 46 RBIs and 14 steals in 18 attempts while hitting .301 against righties.

Right-hander James McDonald was a rather pedestrian 9-9 with a 4.21 ERA in 31 starts in 2011, his first full major-league season, though he showed flashes of brilliance. McDonald's biggest problem was consistency as just 15 of his outings were quality starts -- at least six innings pitched and no more than three earned runs allowed.

This season, the 27-year-old McDonald is 6-3 with a 2.19 ERA in 14 starts (10 quality) going into his start tonight against the Phillies.

McDonald, too, was receptive to change. Catcher Rod Barajas suggested midway through spring training that McDonald begin throwing a slider and now the pitch is a fourth quality offering to go with his fastball, curveball and changeup.

"I thought he needed something else to keep the hitters guessing a little more," said Barajas, a 14-year veteran. "Some guys might have been hesitant to break out a new pitch but James was very willing. I was impressed by his eagerness."

So if McCutchen and McDonald make their rightful trips to Kansas City in two weeks, call it a triumph for continuing education of the new-age ballplayer.

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